Finding Neowise

I blame Alyn Wallace. Him and YouTube. If I hadn't watched his piece on photographing comet Neowise then I wouldn't have looked at the weather forecast and seen that there was a decent forecast for the weekend and possibly the last opportunity in my lifetime to see a comet. Hopefully I'm wrong about that last bit but naked eye visible comets don't exactly pass by that often. So the die was set from that moment, I was going to have to photograph this comet whether I liked it or not.

I should point out that I'm not an astro-photographer; I'm a landscape photographer who dabbles in astro. The problem with dabbling is that astro can be quite tricky if you don't practice it a lot. Unlike most of my landscape subjects, the bit you want to keep sharp is moving, not much, but enough to complicate things. And without stating the obvious, I should point out that it gets dark at night and this makes things very difficult; low light means either lots of noisy photos or long exposure times which is tricky if your subject keeps moving, and wide open apertures lead to reduced optical performance; and you can forget autofocus - it doesn't work in the dark. There are techniques to overcome these problems but they all require practice and a clear head which brings me to the other problem. It's very inconvenient if you value your sleep; I'm long past the age when I could stay up all night and operate efficiently the next day and I've read scary books about what the lack of sleep does to your body. So trying to remember to balance your exposure between your tracked and static shot or ensuring your exposure time stays within the 500 rule are all a lot harder when your brain isn't operating in tip top nick.

Black Rock Cottage Glencoe

So why do it ? Simple, because you get a buzz when the image appears on the back of the sensor. It can be like a bit of magic; you point the camera at an apparently dark piece of sky and there's all this bright stuff there that you can't see with the naked eye.

Remote wilderness cabin in Finland with star trails and aurora

So yes, it can be quite addictive but to counter that, it is usually cold and in the UK cloudy a lot of the time. In Scotland during the summer it's too light or too midgy, sometimes both at the same time. You have to be really dedicated to get high quality astro shots and I greatly admire the many that do such as Alyn.

Anyway getting back to the comet. I'd never photographed a comet before but having seen some of the photos people were sharing online, it looked impressive and I was on for the challenge. What I was lacking in practise, I decided to make up for in planning. There are several great phone apps that take a lot of the guesswork out of aligning astronomical bodies with the landscape. I was using Stellarium Mobile, which gave both a visual indication of the position of the comet relative to the horizon and other constellations as well as the azimuth and height in degrees. I could see that this weekend it would be moving eastwards from NNE to North between midnight and about 3 am after which time it would be too light.

Stellarium mobile

I wanted to get a shot of the comet with some interesting landscape in the foreground. Looking back, that was a bit ambitious; the comet is now quite high in the sky but had been closer to the horizon earlier in July which would have made a better photo. Maybe I should have just concentrated on the comet but you don't learn without trying. Using the Photopills app and an OS map, I scouted out a few potential locations a couple of days before the clear sky forecast. It's always a good idea to have at least a couple of options in the bag in case the cloud gods don't behave. I had three options, one for around midnight and another two for later when the comet would be due north.

There are two types of astro-photographers in the world - stackers and trackers. Stacking means you take lots of shots at the same exposure and let clever software merge them together to reduce the noise and somehow (this is the clever bit) bring all the starry bits back into alignment. Tracking means you have a gadget under your camera that you align with Polaris which then rotates your camera at the same rotational speed as the earth. So the stars are stationary in the photo.....but the ground is now moving and gets blurred. So you have to take another shot of the ground which you can then blend seamlessly with the sky shot. It's the blending seamlessly bit that can be tricky, especially if you get objects sticking above the horizon with stars behind them, like trees. I have a foot in both camps and can't say I've really nailed either approach yet.

The Shoot

I have six weather apps on my phone. Sometimes they agree and with 24 hours to go they were all saying clear skies forecast from midnight. Woohoo! But as time drew on and sunset got nearer there was a bit of a falling out. By 10 pm we had a difference of opinion but there was a majority saying there would be partial cloud at midnight and then clearing by 2 am. Looking out of the window at the streaks of static altostratus obscuring the northern skies, I sided with the majority and went to bed having set an alarm for 1:30. am. I reckoned 2 hours of sleep might just be enough to stave off the worst of the side effects of sleep deprivation - like early death, weight gain, dementia and heart disease - told you I'd read a book about it.

I awoke from my brief slumber on time and a quick glance outside confirmed the forecast was correct. Dressed and kit quickly assembled, I headed outside expecting to see the streak of a beautiful comet in the northern sky. Nope - couldn't see a thing. I stood for 10 minutes waiting for my vision to adapt to the darkness....still nothing. So I consulted the Stellarium app and confirmed exactly where it should be but was still unable to spot anything. As this was supposed to be a comet visible to the naked eye I was wondering if the thing had broken up and I just hadn't heard about it. Then I glanced over my left shoulder and spotted a bright meteor streaking over my house. That's supposed to be a sign of good fortune so maybe it would make an appearance after all. I stuck to the plan; I was well awake anyway and wanted some adventure even if it wasn't going to involve a comet.

I've managed to devise a way of carrying ridiculous amounts of camera gear on a bicycle. The advantages of using a bike are the accessibility that you don't get with a car. The disadvantage is the effort and time it takes to get anywhere. So if you're going local, the bike wins and I was soon on my way to option 2 of my scouted shooting locations. The bike is also a quieter means of transport which is handy if you want to avoid waking the neighbours who would rightly assume that the only reason for anyone being up at this time of night is either doing shift work or up to nefarious deeds ... and they know I don't work shifts.

The bike has a small light on the front which emits stonking amounts of light. This is very useful when cycling in dark woods as it helps to eliminate those small doubts that creep into your mind about what is lurking behind that large tree you are fast approaching. Turns out it's a huge badger. Tonight was getting better and better - a shooting star and now some wildlife - things were looking up.

I was soon at the location and glad I'd scouted it out beforehand; everything looks a lot different in the dark and I doubt I would have found my way through the trees if I hadn't visited it in daylight. I'd selected a great spot for the view of the Queensferry Crossing over the Forth. However, this wasn't just a nice view of a bridge but one that also aligned with the location of the absent comet. A comet which I now managed to find thanks to the zoom function when reviewing the first few shots. It was tiny (it's 5 km across but a long way away), quite dim and easily missed but it's still a comet and they're cool so I was super happy. Comet Neowise had already gone around the sun and was on its way back out to a lonely cold existence in the outer regions of our solar system. So its distinctive tail had indeed dimmed since the photos taken earlier in July - well that's my excuse for not spotting it earlier.

I circled the comet just in case you couldn't find it

So I got the shot I had planned although, it wasn't as impressive as I'd hoped. I tried the stacking technique with multiple shots of identical exposure but it wasn't really necessary as I was able to keep within exposure time that would lead to blurred stars and still kept a low ISO so keeping the noise under control. Then I tried a vertical panorama with a longer lens but it didn't work out. I also realised afterwards that I could have bracketed the shot and that would have allowed me to reduce the highlights on the bridge lights but by the time I realised that, the sky was getting lighter and the comet was fading from view. No time left to try out my star tracker either - I'll just have to wait for the next comet - no point waiting for Neowise to come back as I'll be dust by then. Instead I made do with a bracketed shot of just the bridge which turned out not too shabby.

Lessons Learnt

As I said at the start, I tried to make up for lack of experience with extra planning. The problem with that approach is that it can stop you thinking on your feet and recognising opportunities. In this case I was concentrating on taking a shot involving the foreground. And so I completely forgot to try taking a shot with a long lens and using the tracker. And I still can't explain why I forgot to bracket the comet shot. Of course I might not have been operating at optimum efficiency at 2:30 am and so my addled sleep deprived brain completely forgot a lot of the thinking and planning I'd done. Which all goes to prove that sometimes you just can't replace experience with anything other than lots of practise.

I should have also foregone the sleep and just got out there and ignored the cloudy forecast. That would have meant more time to prepare and capture the best shots.

So another chunk of experience gained but not forgotten and by writing this piece I hope it makes the lessons learnt stick that bit longer, assuming the sleep deprivation doesn't wipe out the memory banks. That's the thing about photography - I never cease making mistakes and learning from them. The day I get it all right, I'll be bored. I enjoyed my little adventure into the dark; it's not every night you get to see a shooting star, a badger and comet. I'm looking forward to trying something similar soon.

Created By
Tim Hodges